Sunday, November 19, 2006

Pollution and Health: "We want life" and "Give us some air to breathe"

There is little doubt that high pollution levels are detrimental to the health of the local population and many studies provide evidence linking emission levels (of various kinds) to asthma and other respiratory diseases.

As part of some on going research (with a PhD student) we are examining the effects of community characteristics on pollution levels using the excellent TRI data from the US. Dan Millimet (Southern Methodist), among others,has done some interesting work in this area (as part of an extensive body of good empirical environmental work).

It was therefore interesting to read that other local communities, such as those in Serbia, are standing up to protest at high pollution levels and the emissions of cancer causing chemicals from industrial plants.

Perhaps the most astonishing quote from the article is:
The managers have acknowledged the toxic release, but said it was a "normal everyday procedure."

You could not make it up.

Thousands Protest Cancer-Causing Pollution in Industrial Serbian City
BELGRADE, Serbia — About 2,000 residents of an industrial Serbian town rallied in Belgrade Friday to protest at the release of cancer-causing pollution from a petrochemical plant.

Chanting "We want life" and "Give us some air to breathe," the protesters, some of whom marched on foot the 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Pancevo to Belgrade, rallied in front of Serbia's government headquarters.

They demanded urgent measures to stop the emission of benzene and chlorine, allegedly released into the air by a petrochemical plant, that triggered a public alarm system in Pancevo on Wednesday, prompting thousands of residents to remain indoors and cover their faces with surgical masks or handkerchiefs.

The toxins were reduced from 118 micrograms per cubic meter of air to "nearly normal levels" of about 16 micrograms by Friday, city officials said, seeking to ease concern in Pancevo as well as among Belgrade's population of nearly 2 million.

The government started legal proceedings against the oil refinery managers, blaming them for allowing the leakage during a night that was free of wind or rain, which would have reduced the concentration of the toxins in the air. The managers have acknowledged the toxic release, but said it was a "normal everyday procedure."

The protesters, carrying a banner reading "Belgrade, cancer is knocking on your door too," were demanding that Serbia's government hold an urgent session of the Cabinet in Pancevo on Saturday to permanently solve the problem by investing millions of dollars in air pollution filters.

But the protesters returned home "without promises from the government that the ecological problem will be resolved soon," said Srdjan Mikovic, the head of Pancevo's local government. He called on the protesters to start a blockade of the petrochemical facilities in Pancevo on Saturday.

The petrochemical complex was heavily bombarded during the 1999 NATO air attacks on Serbia over the Kosovo conflict, causing leakage and contamination of both the air and land. It has undergone repairs since then but still lacks sophisticated safeguards.

Pancevo, a town of some 50,000 people, along with a few other areas in Serbia, was designated an environmental hazard in a U.N. damage-assessment report conducted after the 1999 air war.

The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement Friday expressing "serious concern over pollution in Pancevo ... which is a major health hazard for the local population."

"The frequency of such incidents in the country indicates that the mechanisms of environmental protection in Serbia are insufficient," said Hans Ola Urstad, the head of the OSCE mission in Belgrade.

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